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Effective Search Strategies: Keywords

How to search effectively using keywords, boolean operators and other options.

Why Keywords Matter

Despite all the advances in web and database searching, computers still don't do well with meaning.

When you type a word into a search box, the computer looks only for the word you typed, not the concept you had in mind. To you, that word is an idea. To the computer, that word is a bunch of letters. 

The burden is on you, the researcher, to choose the best keywords. Keywords have a direct and measurable effect on the results you get.

Even a small change in your keywords can lead to a big change in results.

Credit: John M. Peau Library

Generating keywords

The first step in thinking of keywords is to define your topic. You can't research or write about a topic if you can't articulate what it is!  Try writing your topic down in a sentence or a question.

Think of keywords to describe each concept involved in your topic.  Think of more than one, in case, your first choice doesn't work.

Focus on synonyms and related terms. What are other ways to state your topic?  Is there a specific word that describes an abstract concept in your topic? 

Example: "How does funding from Political Action Committees affect the election process?"

Idenfity synonyms for key concepts.

funding             Political Action Committees      election process  
financing PAC's elections
fund raising donors campaigns


Identify related concepts: political parties, voters, candidates, special interests, politics, state & federal laws, democracy


credit:  South Dakota State University

Search Engines vs. Library Databases

Searching electronic library resources is different than using a search engine like Google or Yahoo.  

If you enter a question or phrase in a search engine you may retrieve the information you need.

This strategy is less likely to work with the library's catalog or databases. For these electronic resources you'll want to enter more precise searches using key words rather than a complete sentence.






credit: revised from South Dakota State University

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